A Christian Kōan (Part 2)
Paul O. Ingram
Pacific Lutheran Universisty (Emeritus)
See also A Christian Kōan (Part 1)
Helping undergraduates to think critically about religious experience is a great gig, especially when one of them shows up in your office with that gleam in her eyes that says, “I want to talk about this.” At such moments one’s students become “hidden teachers,” as Loren Eisley phrased it, because the focus of their questions force one to reexamine ideas germinating in one’s mind over a long academic career. Such moments do not happen often. When they do, usually after intense intellectual and emotional struggle, insight lights up a student’s eyes like twin lasers. And you know they have grown beyond the need for your instruction because they have begun to connect for themselves the life of the mind with the life of faith. Like Jacob at the River Jabbok, they are now wrestlers with God. During such moments I whispered to myself, “Welcome to the journey, kiddo. But stay frosty, because it will be a long bumpy road walking with your hip thrown out of joint.”
The light in Alyssa’s eyes was the only bright thing on that Pacific Northwest morning. I was watching rain falling hard from slate colored clouds shrouding the tops of Douglas firs and red cedars and dimpling pools of water beginning to flood the street that runs outside my office window. Like Herman Melville’s Ishmael, I was experiencing “a dark November of the Soul.” The way I handled Alyssa’s question earlier just didn’t satisfy either of us.
The topic of our morning class had been John Hick’s “pluralist hypothesis” and his thesis that Christian theology of religions needs to pass beyond the “Ptolemaic” perspectives of “exclusivist” and “inclusivist” understandings of the world’s religious Ways and undergo a “Copernican” paradigm shift toward a pluralist theology of religions—not a discussion designed to gather positive teaching evaluations from most eighteen-to-twenty-two-year-old undergraduates sitting in a cold classroom at eight o’clock on a wet November morning.
The light in Alyssia’s eyes was sparked by my answers to a series of questions that occurred to her after reflecting on Hick’s pluralist hypothesis in An Interpretation of Religion in conjunction with my views on religious pluralism that she had read in my book, Wrestling With the Ox—which was not a required text for this particular assignment. She was frustrated with both books.
“I just don’t get it, Dr. Ingram. If there’s a single reality called ‘God’ in some religions and something else in other religions, I still don’t understand why there are so many different religions. Why isn’t there just one religion for everyone? Do you really agree with Hick that no two religions are exactly alike even though there are family resemblances? Do you really think all religions are true for the people who seriously practice them?”
“Yes,” I answered. “But that doesn’t mean all religious experiences correspond equally to reality, the way things really are as opposed to the way we wish things to be or not to be. Marx was half right. Any religious Way can become an opiate of the mind and emotions. But he was also half wrong. There are always historical and cultural issues; everything has to be seen in its own particular context.”
“But do you really agree with Hick?” she demanded.
“Yes, but our conclusions are not identical. There’s always more than one way to skin a religious Way.”
“Because I’m a monotheist. Monotheism means there exists one Sacred Reality continually creating everything. This includes humanity’s religious Ways.”
My answer came with little reflection, unplanned and spontaneous, blurted like the answer to a Zen kōen, because that is exactly what Alyssa’s question was. My response wasn’t nuanced. Alicia knew it as well as I. But somehow it rang true, if I am a judge of gleams in student’s eyes. So she showed up in my office to reflect with me about the implications of monotheism for theological reflection on the implications of religious pluralism—Just as I did over fifty years ago when my eyes were lit up by what my first instructor in history of religions had said about religious pluralism. Her newly found kōan was mine.
Alyssa continues to meditate on her kōan. Our conversation years ago led her to religious studies as a second major during her undergraduate years at Pacific Lutheran University. From here her path led her to Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Now she lives in deliberate simplicity outside a small, isolated ranching community in North Dakota and spends her professional time as the pastor of a small Lutheran congregation helping them contextualize their Christian faith with the realities of religious pluralism—a pluralism that in her neck of the universe includes the spirituality of the Lakota and Cheyenne people, on behalf of whom she fights for economic and social justice against some very powerful and wealthy politicians, ranchers, and farmers. On the side she leads a small group of people in contemplative prayer and zazen to deepen her openness to God and to keep her spirit from being eaten alive by her passion for political and social activism. It’s one of the ways she wrestles with God that she learned from Thich Nhat Hahn’s advice to his students: “Inner work involves outer work.”
Alyssa hates television and refuses to own one. But she reads anything she can get her hands on with the appetite of wolves at entrails, he favorite writer at the moment being Anne Dillard. In one of her letters she cited this passage from Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek as a description of her wrestling match with God:
“Ezekiel excoriates false prophets as those who have ‘not gone up into the gaps.’ The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spar and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the cliffs in the rocks where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between the mountains and the cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fjords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn and unlock—more than a maple—a universe. This is how you spend the afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.
I replied to her with a one-word letter: “Yes!”
 Loren Eisley, “The Hidden Teacher,” The Unexpected Universe (New York: Harcourt, 1969), 48-66.
 Anne Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 268-69.